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Right now Jon and I are skyping with our Ugandan friends: Stephen, who is studying at Notre Dame, in the US, and his wonderful girlfriend Winnie, who is working in Gulu, Uganda. We are recalling memories of our last double date at an Indian restaurant in Gulu and talking about current events in Uganda. Stephen is sharing some of his thinking about some new ideas he has for projects in northern Uganda. Winnie  keeps asking us when we are coming back.

I’m struck by how much joy these little interactions give me. To be able to hear both Winnie’s and Stephen’s voices while we are on completely separate continents feels like some sort of miracle.

A little bit of simple joy for my Wednesday afternoon.

I write from O’Hare airport, Terminal 2, Gate E12. It’s 1:30pm CST and in a few minutes I begin my journey back ‘home’ to Galway, Ireland via Atlanta, Georgia. CNN is blaring from plasma screens to my left and right. Straight ahead mammoth planes mosey in and out of their parking spots flanked by buzzing trucks carrying luggage and saran-wrapped chicken or pasta. The sight reminds me of watching the gulls race circles around the slow swans in Galway Bay.

I’ve spent a lot of time in airports over the past nine days…From Dublin to Atlanta to Tampa Bay to Cincinnati to Chicago to Atlanta to Dublin. So much time sitting at gates and overpriced coffee shops waiting to be shot 35,000 feet in the air can make a person crazy. It must feel something like sitting in an interrogation room waiting for the detective, or taking a breather during a time-out before going out to shoot the last-second free throw.

And so, to pass the time, I listen….

Waiting in line for coffee in Dublin an older gentleman chatted me up for a few minutes about his frustrations at the inefficiencies he saw. Why not put full pots of coffee out, so people who just want plain coffee don’t have to wait for the server to fill the cup for them? Why don’t they put the little sleeves that keep you from burning your hand on a to-go cup out, so the server doesn’t have to waste time putting them on for you? If he was in charge, boy, he’d do things differently.

Waiting in Tampa Bay I watched two boys around 8-10 years old meet each other and pass 30 minutes talking about a Wii game they both love. After one of the boy’s Dad came to retrieve him for their flight, the boy’s parting words to his newfound friend were, “I’ll see you on the internet.” In this age of Skype and G-chat video, his use of the word see was perhaps apt.

Waiting in Chicago I eavesdropped on two guys responding to a panel discussion on the federal stimulus bill blaring on CNN. I wish I could have written faster to capture it all. Here’s a snippet:

“I love CNN. Great joke channel. Comedy News Network…They’re all after one world government and one world socialism. I’m thinking I need to get some guns. And a lot of them.” Seriously…direct quote.

His more reasonable conversation partner responded with, “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. At least we didn’t go off the deep end. But, I’d say the spending is a bit out of control. I just wish they’d include $20,000 or so in it for me. Then I’d be able to pay my mortgage down a little, trade in for a new car, all that stuff they’ve got programs for.”

When I get tired of listening, I read. Reading is like listening, I suppose, but with more control.

On this trip, I read a Newsweek. The cover story is a case for gay marriage written by Ted Olson – a well known conservative lawyer that represented George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election dispute. Olson has decided that, based on his conservative principles, it’s no longer just for the state to prevent loving, committed, gay couples from marrying, if they so desire. We let ex sex-offenders, adulterers, even murders, marry – but not loving, law-abiding homosexual couples. Leave it to churches to make their own theological determinations, and keep the state out of it, says Olson. This is a challenging argument, especially from someone within the conservative movement.

Then on to the Chicago Tribune. The front page story is about how the Chicago Public School Board presidents have spent thousands of public dollars on superfluous personal expenses. Ironically, the Rock River Times I threw in my carry-on to read has a cover story about Rockford School Board leaders spending $20,000 for a short trip to Chicago.

In his book After Virtue, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre imagines what society would be like if people stopped cultivating internal virtues of ethical behavior and acted solely in the self-interest that modern society holds so dear. Reading about corruption in the Tribune and the Rock River Times makes one seem as if we’ve already arrived in MacIntyre’s afterlife. But I know such cynicism is not exactly fair. Virtue is all around us…it usually just doesn’t make the deadlines. Stories about human goodness don’t sell newspapers.

Someday, when historians look back on our time in search of an illustration to summarize our civilization, they’ll probably look to the airport. It’s all here. The complexity and uniformity of the air travel regime reveals globalization at its most advanced. The architecture is more Mies van der Rohe than Daniel Burnham – built for efficiency, and convenience (unlike the monument style Union rail stations they replaced). Vendors at every corner satiate our consumerist obsessions. Security checks and sniffing German Shepards capture the conundrum of enjoying both freedom and security. People of myriad ethnicities walking the same halls show our increasing cosmopolitanism, even while we usually travel with those who look like us. The bells and whistles provided to ‘frequent flyers’, ‘platinum club members’, and ‘silver-elite customers’ exemplify the enduring separations of social class, as do the scores of empty seats at gate waiting areas that could be filled by those who cannot afford to visit the airport in the first place.

And quiet people with laptops, sitting anonymously at their gate, post their random reflections on an internet blog for millions of people to read.

Or, in my case, perhaps more like two or three…

Living far away from friends and family is hard sometimes, but not nearly as hard as it used to be. I can remember my Grandpa telling me about how when he and my grandma lived in Alaska in the 1940s they used short-wave radios to communicate with family back in Illinois. Each comment was accompanied by several seconds of delay and fuzz. When I was doing fieldwork in Northern Uganda last year, Dr. Chris Dolan – Director of the Refugee Law Project where I was based – told me about how when he was doing dissertation research there in the 1990s he had to send written notes along with people on buses to get a message to Kampala. No texting, just good old word-of-mouth.

Contrasted with these former realities, the revolutionary power of Skype becomes obvious. While sitting in the same chair in my Galway apartment on a random afternoon I can see and listen to my Grandma in Belvidere, friends in Chicago, a former Ugandan colleague now studying at Notre Dame, parents and parents-in-law, etc. I can walk them around my apartment, even a little bit down the street…I can smile, laugh, choose to make eye contact or look away. In short, I can relate…and that means the world. Theoretically, I could even connect these people directly by doing a conference video call. In the click of a button my mom could see and talk to a friend I made a world away in Northern Uganda.

Of course, the joys of Skype are restricted to those who are privileged enough to have  high speed internet and a computer that can run the program. Thus, access is denied to billions. This is the curse and conundrum of the digital divide. I can only hope that with time, the divide will decrease and more and more of us that are separated by oceans will be able to walk each other around our homes, share pieces of ourselves, build relationships to the extant that the virtual world will allow, and begin the process of understanding each other just a bit better.


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